Former state Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond brings a great wealth of experience as a manager and attorney to his new role of interim superintendent of the DeKalb County School District. However, he doesn’t bring a background in education.
He’s already getting good advice on how to shore up that deficit. At his first public appearance last week, one resident told Thurmond, “Student achievement must be the focus.”
School board member Nancy Jester offered, “Things don’t teach children. Programs don’t teach children… . Nothing can replace the gentle hand of a teacher reading and rereading a passage in a book and encouraging a child to think beyond herself, beyond today and imagine the possibilities of a full future.”
To overhaul DeKalb, the state’s third-largest district and, of late, one of its most troubled, Thurmond ought to heed another piece of advice: Don’t confuse the DeKalb County school system with the DeKalb County Board of Education. Don’t permit the problems of the board to distract from the goals of stabilizing the rattled district, preserving accreditation and raising student achievement.
In December, the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools placed DeKalb on probation, citing school board meddling and mismanagement. Now, the governor is weighing ousting the entire board, pending a recommendation by the state Board of Education, which meets Thursday to hear from DeKalb schools.
Thurmond has announced that he plans to speak for the district at that meeting. While Thurmond may feel bound to the board that chose him, these nine people should be able to argue their own case for retaining their jobs.
Thurmond’s top concern ought to be the 99,000 other people counting on him — the students of DeKalb.
Years ago, the DeKalb school system was an incubator of innovation and a model for the state, launching some of the first magnet programs.
In returning to those glory days or at least to better days, Thurmond may want to borrow from the federal strategy: Focus on the lowest performing schools and free up the successful ones to chart their own courses. Whether called charter clusters or a new descriptor, these high performing pockets in DeKalb — and there are several — ought to be given benchmarks to meet but left on their own to get there.
Such a strategy would sweep away a few piles on Thurmond’s desk and enable him to concentrate on failing schools. Some problems in those schools should be easy to fix, including complaints that students lack textbooks. Other problems, including the nagging achievement gap, will be tougher to address as many of DeKalb’s lowest performing schools are also its poorest.
Too many resources that ought to have gone to schools have been squandered in missteps and mistakes.
In 2002, the county welcomed outsider Johnny Brown who was hired to shake up the status quo. Two years and several failed policies later, Brown fled DeKalb with a $410,000 payout.
The school board looked within for his replacement, but district veteran Crawford Lewis ended up under criminal indictment, charged with lying to investigators to cover up a corruption conspiracy involving the management of more than $80 million in taxpayer money.
Insider Ramona Tyson served as interim for two years until a fractious national search led to the hiring of Cheryl Atkinson of Ohio. After 16 months, she now leaves with $114,583.
Along with restoring stability, Thurmond must regain the public’s battered trust. He has to continue the arduous and politically explosive task of reducing the district’s $16 million deficit while responding to parent complaints about overcrowded classes. He has to clamp down on escalating legal costs and buoy the morale of teachers, who are fed up with the reforms begun and then abandoned with each leadership shift.
Thurmond can’t give DeKalb schools and students his full attention if he’s preoccupied with school board antics. Whether this board goes or stays, Thurmond has to quickly and emphatically redirect every employee, every decision and every penny to the cause of student achievement.
Maureen Downey, for the Editorial Board